"Colorblindness" Overlooks Structural Inequality

IMG_0199 Good morning.  Thanks to all who have been tracking with our multi-part series on Critical Race Theory and Christianity.  It seems like we’ve struck a nerve with this one, so I’m excited to keep sharing ideas—back and forth—between us.

Some very thoughtful comments came in last week from Paul, a teacher, pastor, and doctoral student at my old stomping grounds—U.C. Berkeley.   He raised the important point that the colorblind approach to race ignores not only the cultural diversity which God Himself created, but also the stubborn racism which continues to pervade U.S. socio-economic and political institutions.   It is to this important point that we turn to this week.

Supporters of “colorblindness” say that racism is behind us.  Sure, racism rears its ugly head once in a while in individual encounters between people, but, as a whole, it’s a thing of the past.  As evidence they say, “see, we elected a black, Kenyan president…”

The larger narrative of “colorblindness” goes something like this:

“Yes, it’s true, our country has an ugly racist past.  We enslaved African Americans for hundreds of years and segregated them through Jim Crow laws.  That was terrible.  But we’ve learned from our mistakes.  We passed important civil rights legislation in the 1960’s which put an end to de jure (legal) segregation and racial discrimination in housing, education, and employment.  We experimented with “affirmative action” for a few years, but that was a bad idea.  It resulted in “reverse discrimination” against whites and did more harm than good.   Racism is no longer a reality in the United States, so let’s forget about race in public discourse and social policy.  This  was the goal of Martin Luther King—to judge people based upon the content of their character instead of the color of their skin.

Like Mitt Romney says, ‘America is about equal opportunity, not equal results.’  If some people remain poor today it’s their own fault.  They need to work harder, and to stop playing the victim and pulling the race card.  America doesn’t see race anymore.”

This colorblind perspective misses the fact that grave structural inequalities—in education, healthcare, politics, and the law-- continue to pervade urban communities of color throughout the United States.    

Although de jure, legal segregation ended some 48 years ago in the U.S., “de facto” (in fact) racial segregation is still quite prevalent.   Jim Crow segregation produced unequal conditions of housing, education, health care, legal services, etc., which have not gone away despite the official end to segregation in the 1960’s.   Jim Crow segregation produced segregated neighborhoods, schools, health care systems, etc., which have continued to replicate themselves up to the present day.

Public schools attended by millions of beautiful brown and black children are vastly inferior to those in rich suburban neighborhoods within the same school district.  These same children and their families lack access to quality, affordable health care and legal services, and have few parks and safe public spaces in which to play and just be a kid. The majority of Latinos and African Americans in the United States today continue to experience the invidious lingering effects of Jim Crow segregation.

Lest you think I’m just some radical ethnic studies professor and liberation theology pastor, let’s take a look at some staggering statistics which bear this out:  1 out of every 3 valid legal claims of the poor in California is never heard in court because no attorney will take their case (because they can’t afford to pay); stated another way, 2/3 of the legal services needs of the poor are unmet in this state and it would require $394,100,000 per year to close this profound “justice gap.”

In 2010, 15.1 percent of all people in the United States—more than 46 million-- lived in poverty.   Poverty of any stripe is horrible, but poverty is disproportionately prevalent among people of color.  That same year, 27.4 percent of African Americans and 26.6 percent of Latinos lived in poverty, as compared to 9.9 percent of “non-Hispanic whites.”

There’s also a huge wealth gap between whites, blacks, and Latinos.   The average white family has about $632,000 in wealth.  For African Americans and Latinos, it’s $98,000 and $110,000, respectively.  White families also earn, on average, $2 for every $1 earned by African American and Latino families.

With regards to educational access, only 8% of low-income students—many of whom are African American and Latino-- graduate from college sometime within their lifetime vs. 87% of students from affluent communities who will graduate from college by the age of 24.   Out of every 100 Chican@ students who begin elementary school, only 8 will graduate from college, 2 will go on to earn a graduate or professional school degree, and less than 1 will earn a doctorate!  Sadly, similar statistics can be reported for African Americans.  In 2005-2006, only 47% of African American male students graduated from high school.   In 2007, only 56% of African American high school graduates went on to attend college, and in that same year the college graduation rate for African Americans was only 42%.

As for healthcare, close to 50 million people are currently uninsured in the United States.  1 in 4 children go without healthcare in our country, and more than 23 million kids go without adequate healthcare in any given year.   About 30 percent of Latino and 20 percent of African American children lack a regular source of health care, and brown kids are almost 3 times more likely than white kids to lack  sufficient healthcare.

And so, millions of Chican@s, Latin@s, African Americans, and others, are still segregated from equal opportunity in the United States. 

I have a challenge for you which I think may clarify the link between historical racism and contemporary inequality.   Check out the following website: http://salt.unc.edu/T-RACES/demo/demo.html

This website was put together by researchers at the University of California and the University of North Carolina.  You’ll be shocked by what you find.  It graphically demonstrates how neighborhoods in California and North Carolina were racially segregated in the 1930’s and 40’s. The picture attached to this blog entry is a screen shot of Los Angeles during this time period.

The “red” areas were segregated areas inhabited predominantly by people of color—African Americans, Latinos, and Asians.   Not only were they residentially segregated, but they also had the worst schools and limited access to basic public services like hospitals, parks, swimming pools, etc.   If you were Mexican American, there was a good chance that you attended a segregated, and inferior, “Mexican School” in Southern California.  On hot summer days, if you were Mexican or Black, you were often restricted as to when you could use the public swimming pools or parks.  If you liked the movies, you were forced to sit in segregated sections of the theater.  One city I came across (Pasadena) even had segregated hiking!  If you were Mexican you could only enjoy God’s beautiful mountains on a limited basis in Pasadena.  Even some mortuaries were segregated.  For many African Americans and Latinos, it was segregation from the cradle to the grave.   This historical racism gave birth to inferior social, political, and economic institutions in urban communities—which have replicated themselves to the present day.   

The “green” areas were occupied exclusively by whites and were segregated through the use of restrictive housing covenants—legal agreements in housing deeds which prohibited the sale of homes to non-whites.   These areas had the best schools, hospitals, legal services, parks, pools, etc.   They still do.

The “blue” areas were one step below green; and the “yellow” areas were one step above red.

Local realtors and brokers of the time described the red areas as undesirable because they were inhabited by Mexicans, Blacks, Japanese, and even “low class Italians.”  In describing these red areas they said things like:  “Subversive racial elements increasing,” or, “Shifting to subversive racial elements.”

The green areas were considered more desirable because of their racial exclusivity and homogeneity.  One description of a green area states: “Racial protection in perpetuity”—i.e., this area will always be “whites-only” because the legal restrictions in place will last forever.

I dare say almost everyone in the United States would agree that this type of racial segregation was terrible.  What most people don’t realize, however, is that the areas that were “green” 70 years ago are still largely racially segregated today.  Few Latinos and African Americans live in these high brow communities, and these cities still have the best public schools, hospitals, restaurants, parks, pools, skate parks, banks, public services, etc.   Schools in these areas have the highest API/standardized test scores, most qualified teachers, and the most AP (advanced placement) courses available.  Their graduates go on to top colleges and universities in high numbers, and they become future doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, architects, university professors, judges, and senators.  Unless you are able to afford the million dollar price tags on the homes, or $5,000 a month rent, you, and your kids, are locked out of these communities.

In fact, if you are a person of color, you may even still experience some racial hostility—passive or aggressive—when you enter some of these communities.  After driving into one of these communities a close African American friend of mine was told, “Go back hood!”  See also my blog post about the Black family that was recently driven out of the city of Yorba Linda in Orange County: http://www.jesusforrevolutionaries.org/driven-out-a-black-familys-battle-with-housing-discrimination-in-the-o-c/.

The areas that were marked  “red” and “yellow” 70 years ago are still largely poor, impoverished, and inhabited largely by people of color.   These formerly red areas still have the lowest performing and most poorly funded schools, and they still lack adequate health care, legal services, parks, pools, banking services, etc.  They also lack access to healthy food options ranging from restaurants to affordably-priced fruits and vegetables.   What you won’t find is a lack of fast food joints and pay-day loan places.  You’ll also be more opt to find pollution and racist policing practices in these communities as well.

If we take a “color-blind” approach to social policy and wrongly assume that racial disparities no longer exist in the United States, then we will miss all of the--very real-- institutional inequality that I’ve just described.  We will also continue to perpetuate a racial underclass for decades to come.   A colorblind perspective will produce an upper and middle class which is mostly “white,” peppered with some Blacks and Latinos.  If we don’t get to the root of race-based structural inequality in the United States, then poverty and injustice will continue to replicate itself in our communities of color.

As followers of Jesus, we have an affirmative obligation to help change this.  More than 2,000 verses of Scripture tell us so.  Here’s a few.  (And in case you’d like to read more, see: http://www.compassion.com/poverty/what-the-bible-says-about-poverty.htm)

"Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise," says the LORD. ‘Then I will protect them from those who malign them.’” Psalm 5:12

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

    and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry

    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe them,

    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

    and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness[a] will go before you,

and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;

you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

    and your night will become like the noonday.

11 The Lord will guide you always;

he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land

and will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a well-watered garden,

like a spring whose waters never fail.

12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations;

you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,

Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.  Isaiah 58:6-12

“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”  Psalm 82:3-4

“I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.”  Psalm 140:12

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:15-17

In His own “mission statement,” Jesus calls clear attention to the fact that the poor and marginalized are close to His heart and a special focus of His love and redemption:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me (Jesus), because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed." Luke 4:18

In response to all of this, I can’t help but pray. Will you join me?

Lord, I know I fail in this all the time.  Please help me to love the poor and marginalized as You so clearly say in Your Word.  Help me to go beyond just well-intentioned words, and help me and all those reading these words to be Your vessels of love and empowerment to the poor.

We know that the roots of poverty in our country have deep historical roots which still play themselves out today on a daily basis--both in the lives of individuals and entire communities.   Lord, You have forgiven me of many wrongs, and continue to do so on a daily basis.  Thank You for Your forgiveness and grace.  Please help me to forgive those who perpetrated the grave sins of structural racism in the United States, just as You have forgiven me.  Help me also to have loving patience with those who put forth the colorblind perspective today.  I know that many of them do so without malice as an expression of their own life experience.  Thank You that You are also patient with me in my many blindspots.

Please grant us wisdom to understand the causes of poverty and racial disparity in our country, and the world, more and more.  Please send us out in Your Name and authority to bring change.  May we be known as Your disciples by our love.  We cannot do this on our own.  We need You.  In Jesus’ Name, Amen.